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U.S. groups campaign to oppose abortion, 1987-1991
Led by the nonviolent action organization Operation Rescue, thousands of mostly working and middle class Christians from Evangelical and Catholic denominations waged a massive sit-in campaign between 1987 and 1990 to promote pro-life values. The campaign culminated in a nationally organized multiyear wave of nonviolent blockades of medical clinics. Legal action by women’s organizations and new federal laws put a stop to the campaign.
Abortion in the United States was both unregulated and common until 1821, when Connecticut lawmakers prohibited the use of poisons to conduct abortions. Missouri, Illinois, and New York passed similar laws by 1828. At least 20 states had such laws by 1860, and 40 more statutes were passed by 1880. These legislative actions coincided with an aggressive lobbying campaign by the American Medical Association (AMA), which had decided unanimously in 1859 that abortion be deemed an “unwarrantable destruction of human life”.
Abortion fell from American public debate during the first half of the twentieth century to rise again at a time of social transformation . There were increasingly strong moves toward liberalization: in the 1950’s organizations such as Planned Parenthood sought to repeal abortion laws. In 1967 the AMA reversed its previous opinion and called for easing restrictions. The Presidential Advisory Council on the Status of Women in 1968 recommended the repeal of all abortion laws and, within a year, twelve states had amended their abortion laws and four states repealed them completely. Pro-life activists responded to these events in a way consistent with the history of the movement up to that time. They tried to bring forward new legislation, provide alternatives and counseling to pregnant women considering abortion, and to distribute information. The Roman Catholic Church held days of mourning for pro-choice legislators.
Patterns of social action and activism integral to the 1960’s antiwar movement crossed over to the pro-life movement in the 1970’s. For example, on 3 September 1972 about 200 antiwar protestors with long hair showed up from the National Youth Pro-life Council (NYPLC) and gathered near the Lincoln Memorial to make their position known. NYPLC organizers to the event claimed that they represented 1,500 organizations that shared their view. The pro-life activists sang their own version of John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance, singing instead “All we are saying / Is give life a chance”. They symbolically burned 200 birth certificates to conclude their rally (many of which were copies). Organizers were frustrated by the event’s turnout because they expected 25,000 people (100 times more than the actual attendance). The night before the rally members of the pro-choice National Organization for Women (NOW) interrupted a NYPLC candlelight vigil. Despite the letdown nonviolent activism against abortion continued.
In the 1973 case Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court found by a 7-2 majority that state criminal abortion laws “violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects against state action the right to privacy, including a woman's qualified right to terminate her pregnancy”. The court similarly decided a companion case, Doe v. Bolton, and the combination was a near deathblow to the pro-life legal strategy. The mood became a general sense of disempowerment among pro-life activists. Starting in 1977 acts of violence directed against abortion providers and clinics became increasingly common: violence escalated every year until the peak of 148 incidents in 1985. Isolated individuals and small fringe groups carried out the violence that was condemned by many in the pro-life movement.
In this climate of intense conflict Randall Terry, a twenty-something used car salesman from Binghamton, New York, spent most of 1986 traveling to build support for a change in strategy. He co-founded the nonviolent action organization Operation Rescue (OR) in 1987 with the mission to promote pro-life values and to train nonviolent activists. In an interview, Terry said he believed that he had to do something because God spoke to him in a prayer meeting. OR, which brought working and middle class Protestant Evangelicals and Roman Catholics together into a grassroots alliance, would go on to lead a large and fast burning civil disobedience campaign on par with any movement in American history. In 1988 alone there were 188 nonviolent clinic blockades in which more than 11,000 people were voluntarily arrested. The next year the number peaked at 201 nonviolent blockades. Rather than call the actions sit-ins, OR activists called their actions “rescues”. The strategic logic was to close the doors of the clinics and to bring attention to the pro-life movement through the media. The protestors saw their action as a form of nonviolent intervention.
From their base of operations in Binghamton, OR staged its first major action on 28 November 1987. Movement organizers secretly selected Cherry Hill Women’s Center in Cherry Hill, New Jersey as the target for a nonviolent sit-in. 350 protestors from 19 states paid their own way to travel to Cherry Hill. At 5:00 in the morning, the gathered activists learned of their destination, traveled to the site, and created a human barrier to the clinic. Organizers instructed participants to disobey police instructions and allow themselves to be dragged away. The clinic was shut down for the day of the protest and 200 people were arrested for trespassing. Police spent the next six hours booking activists and left 40 participants at the scene. Clinics in neighboring states also shut down in fear of similar action.
Similar nonviolent actions followed in rapid succession. On a single day in May of 1988 more than a thousand protestors from 22 states were arrested in New York, including New York Giants player Mark Bravo, 15 catholic priests, four nuns, and two rabbis. A month later, several hundreds of protestors were arrested in Philadelphia (including Auxiliary Bishop Austin Vaughn and other clergy) during a two-day sit-in at two clinics. For dramatic effect, the arrested protestors refused to give their names to police, instead calling themselves “Baby John Doe” or “Baby Jane Doe.” In Atlanta four clinics were targeted and hundreds were arrested there (almost half of which knowingly obstructed their own release from jail by refusing to provide their names). The jailed protestors sang biblical songs, prayed, and attempted to convert other prisoners to Christianity. The wave of sit-ins continued: hundreds marched in on 5 August 1988 in Tallahassee, Florida; a hundred were arrested 31 December 1988 in Brookline, Massachusetts; hundreds more were arrested in Hartford, Connecticut; and a large display of pro-life sentiment among rural farmers was expressed in response to OR campaigns in Wichita, Kansas.
Events began to spiral out of control. Randall and OR began to get attention through conservative Christian media outlets such as the 700 Club and Insight for Living, but some pro-life venues (such as the National Right to Life News published by the National Right to Life Committee) generally disapproved of civil disobedience and refused to report on OR activities because they were illegal. Some nonviolent pro-life activists went beyond blockading clinics (leading to their arrest on more serious charges). Police responses to the sit-ins escalated and protestors complained of being beaten by police.
A range of factors contributed to the decline of nonviolent action by OR. In 1989 and 1990 pro-choice supporters repeatedly sued OR, won large judgments, and drove regional chapters into bankruptcy. The National Organization for Women alone won cases against OR in six states. Penalties for the sit-ins became more severe and police increasingly used coercive physical tactics against them at the time of arrest. Maryland passed clinic access laws specifically in response to action by OR. The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994 drastically escalated penalties of nonviolent blockades of reproductive health facilities. Violation of the Act could result in six months in jail and $10,000 fine for the first offense. Use of the blockade tactic has since dropped to almost zero.